Jack London's Naturalism

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  • Topic: Dog, The Wild One, The Wild
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Jack London's Naturalism:
The Example of The Call of the Wild
Earl J. Wilcox
BOTH JACK LONDON'S intentions and his accomplishments in The Call of the Wild account for the artistic success of the book. For the story which London intended to write—about a dog who merely reverts to the wild—developed into a full, 32,000 word novel. And the simplicity intended in the implicit atavism in the dog's reversion also became a more complex discussion than London apparently bargained for. But a fortuitous combination of events led London to produce the most popular and the best piece of fiction he ever wrote. Thus while he gauged his audience accurately in writing a popular account of Darwinian literature, at the same time the novel gave him an opportunity to explore the philosophical ideas which had been fermenting in his mind but which he had not found opportunity to express in full in his fiction.Joan London reports her father as saying that he did not recognize “the human allegory in the dog's life-and-death struggle to adapt himself to a hostile environment.”1 And even after he had reread his story several times, he allegedly said, “I plead guilty, but I was unconscious of it at the time, I did not mean to do it.” (Joan London, 252) London's disclaimer has been eagerly accepted by critics who point to the discrepancies in both his plot and his philosophy. Indeed Miss London accepts her father's reported statement as fact, as does, apparently, Roy W. Carlson, and others who can find little to praise in even London's finest work.2 But London was aware of his intentions in the novel, at least in some of the “allegorical” aspects. For sometime later, in defending himself against charges of President Theodore Roosevelt and John Burroughs, who had accused him of being a “nature-faker,” London states his artistic purpose in The Call of the Wild and White Fang:I have been guilty of writing two animal stories—two books about dogs. The writing of these two stories, on my part, was in truth a protest against the “humanizing” of animals, of which it seemed to me several “animal writers” had been profoundly guilty. Time and again, and many times, in my narratives, I wrote, speaking of my dog heroes: “He did not think these things; he merely did them,” etc. And I did this repeatedly to the clogging of my narrative and in violation of my artistic canons; and I did it in order to hammer into the average human understanding that these dog-heroes of mine were not directed by abstract reasoning. Also, I endeavored to make my stories in line with the facts of evolution; I hewed them to the mark set by scientific research, and awoke, one day, to find myself bundled neck and crop into the camp of the nature-faker.3Throughout the essay, London relies on his rather thorough knowledge of Darwinian thought to defend his assertions. If London were not drawing inferences about man in his “dog-heroes,” his entire literary career, particularly in relationship to the naturalistic movement, is called into question. For to leave the implications of his struggle-for-survival thesis in the realm of “lower” animals is to relegate the stories to mere animal adventures. Indeed, there would seem to be no London achievement worth quibbling about. But, in fact, in both the first stories and the first novel—in which human beings are clearly the protagonists—these precise themes and motifs are basic philosophy. The extent to which London makes the Darwinian or Spencerian allegory directly applicable to human existence is surely left for the reader to decide. For while there is confusion in London's articulation between the explicit relationships of the evolutionary and atavistic concepts developed by Darwin and the views advanced by Spencer, London seems little concerned about delineating either with a nice distinction. Nevertheless, precise qualification which focuses on naturalistic implications of the novel accounts for the meaning of the work.The plot of The...
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